Hard Look at $246 Billion for New ICBMs Pledged by a Top Senator

The new chairman of the Senate panel that controls military spending says he’s open to arguments against developing a new $246 billion system of land-based intercontinental missiles even though he represents one of three U.S. states with ICBM installations.

Senator Jon Tester of Montana, home to Malmstrom Air Force Base and its ICBMs, said in an interview that he supports the new Ground Based-Strategic Deterrent awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. last year. It may be the most contentious issue in the upcoming fiscal 2022 defense budget.

But Tester, the Democrat who’s now chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, said in an interview, “I am also going to be talking to everybody I can to make sure those ground-based missiles are the deterrent that they’ve always been, and if I’m convinced that we have got greater threats that those missiles are not a deterrent to, that could change my opinion.”

Modernizing the nation’s Cold War-era capacity to deliver nuclear weapons through the triad of land-based missile systems, submarines and strategic bombers is a key Pentagon priority. The effort is expected to cost as much as $1.2 trillion through 2046 for development, purchase and long-term support, the Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2018.

The 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom is one of the bases that maintain and operate the Minuteman III ICBM so “from a parochial standpoint, I absolutely want” the new program to move forward, Tester said in the interview on Monday.

“I’m in a tight position here” because Malmstrom “is critically important” to his state. But Tester, the Senate’s only working farmer, acknowledged he was starting “from ground-zero” in terms of a deep understanding of the threats underpinning the program because he’s never served on the Armed Services, Intelligence or Foreign Relations committees, which receive the most detailed classified briefings on the subject.

“Right now, I think it’s necessary but my ears are going to be open to make sure,” he said. “If those missiles are not a deterrent” then “I would be stupid to say ‘we need to continue down this line just because it’s good for the economy of Montana.”’ The senator indicated it’s part of his effort to ensure every program is necessary and justified.

On other issues:

  • China: The threat it poses is a “big driver on the budget,” Tester said, and “people need to know what China’s doing that we need to be concerned about.” Still, “I don’t think we should be demonizing China. I think we should be holding China accountable. There’s a difference there. If you demonize you get to a point where your only route is in use of force. I don’t think that’s good for either country.”
  • The coming budget: Tester’s not sure how big a fight there will be over the next budget, the first in a decade in which defense and non-defense spending aren’t constrained by budget caps. The Trump administration had planned to offer a $759 billion national security budget that included a $20 billion overseas contingency operations fund, up from about $741 billion this year. “Unless there is another program coming in that I don’t know about that’s a big deal, what I’m hoping is we end up right about where we are right now and demand more efficiencies,” he said.
  • Navy’s fleet: “We’ll be listening to the Navy” about its needs but the Trump administration’s call for a 500-vessel fleet -- up from 297 today -- is “a lot of damn boats.” Tester called that plan “a bit lavish.”

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